ICJ ruling on Pedra Branca dispute

In 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded Pedra Branca to Singapore. It recognised that Johor had the original title to Pedra Branca, but found that sovereignty over the island had passed to Singapore by the time the dispute crystallised in 1980.

Malaysia had argued that the Sultanate of Johor had possessed the title to the island since its establishment in 1512. That original title was then transmitted to the State of Johor, and subsequently to the Federation of Malaya.

It also put forth that the British and their successor, Singapore, were merely lighthouse operators and never exercised sovereignty over the island.

Singapore's case was that Pedra Branca was terra nullius, or no man's land, when the British took lawful possession of it in 1847.

In building the Horsburgh Lighthouse and other infrastructure, Britain showed its intention to take sovereign control of the island. Subsequently, Britain, and later, Singapore, maintained that title through an open, continuous and effective display of state authority over the island from the 1850s up to the present.

Singapore noted that Malaysia never once protested against Singapore's exercise of sovereignty over the island. It also produced a 1953 letter from Johor's top civil servant at that time to the British authorities, in which the former wrote that "Johor does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca".

The ICJ noted that Johor's 1953 reply showed that as of then, Johor understood that it did not have sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

It found Singapore's activities since then - investigating shipwrecks, granting permission to Malaysian officials to visit and survey surrounding waters, installing military communications equipment, and proposing reclamation plans - a titre de souverain, that is, conduct that confers title on the party responsible.

The court also found that the original title to Middle Rocks - two smaller outcrops nearby - should remain with Malaysia as the successor to the Sultanate of Johor.

As for South Ledge, the court said it belongs to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'ICJ ruling on dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe